BBC gives BP privileged platform to sell its sponsorship deals


On Thursday night, BP’s Peter Mather – who claims to have “green and yellow oil” flowing in his veins – took to the airwaves on Radio 4’s “The Bottom Line”. Chris Garrard, a campaigner with Art Not Oil, saw through his boasts about the benefits of BP’s corporate sponsorship.

Evan Davis, host of Radio 4's 'The Bottom Line'
Evan Davis, host of Radio 4’s ‘The Bottom Line’

The movement against oil sponsorship of museums and galleries is growing from strength to strength, with creative actions by Art Not Oil at BP-sponsored institutions growing in scale and vision. This year alone there has been a festival of performance protest in the British Museum, musical mischief at the Royal Opera House and an all-night artwork in Tate Modern’s turbine hall. Despite this, BP has repeatedly refused to debate us in the media. So, when it was revealed that BP’s Peter Mather would be speaking about corporate sponsorship on Radio 4’s ‘“The Bottom Line”, it was clear that BP is feeling the pressure to defend itself. This would be the first time that BP would publicly answer criticisms about its “artwash” sponsorship.

But while Peter Mather was defending BP on the BBC – ‘we’re very proud to be an oil and gas company… There’s nothing in our portfolio we’re trying to hide’ – a Colombian trade unionist called Gilberto Torres, was completing his speaking tour of the UK. Torres is in the process of taking BP to court over its alleged involvement in his kidnap and torture by a paramilitary group in Casanare, Colombia. He was taken for 42 days, and for several of them, kept in an insect-infested pit. With the details of Gilberto’s case now in the spotlight, Evan Davis should have been asking Mather, “are you sure there’s nothing in your portfolio you’re trying to hide?” Maybe next time the BBC will invite us to ask the awkward questions that Evan overlooked.

Gilberto Torres, speaking about his kidnap and torture in the BP-sponsored British Museum

Evan had begun by asking Mather about the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and how it had affected BP – “it caused us to have a pretty major rethink about what we are doing and how we are doing it”, Mather conceded. He’s absolutely right. In 2011, BP announced that it would be undertaking a five-year sponsorship deal with four world-renowned cultural institutions – the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. The following year, despite its committed attempts to derail climate legislation, BP sunk millions into advertising that it was sustainability partner of the London 2012 Olympic games and a corporate sponsor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘World Shakespeare Festival’. An oil company with a reputation in tatters had set about rebuilding its brand, peppering its logos across elite institutions and events.

“We want to be a good citizen”

As the debate moved on to the motivations for sponsoring, Peter Mather suggested that sponsorship is “much more about general impact on society… We want to be a good citizen, rather than look it.” In reality, and as Peter Mather almost certainly knows, BP spends a great deal more time focussing on how they look than on how they operate, securing that crucial ‘social license’ to operate and the perception that they are trustworthy.

Earlier this year, BP was the sponsor of the British Mueum’s “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation” exhibition and has now submitted its formal plan to drill four new ultra-deep-water wells in the Great Australian Bight, following extensive seismic testing that conveniently coincided with the exhibition. If experience has taught us anything, it’s that BP doesn’t know how to drill in deep-water safely.

Bunna Lawrie, a traditional owner from the Mirning people, has said, “My greatest concern is that I can not let BP mine oil in the Great Australian Bight…it is the greatest whale nursery on this planet.” But the British Museum tripped up too: many of the communities who lent objects to the Indigenous Australia exhibition weren’t told it would carry a BP logo – a sign that sponsorship was overtaking ethics.

Mather claimed that, “We would never seek to ‘curatorially’ intervene [in an institution we sponsor]”. If BP’s competitors, Shell, are anything to go by we know that isn’t true. A Freedom of Information request revealed that Shell’s staff had sent emails making specific requests about the presentation of the Science Museum’s climate exhibition – “I’d prefer the wording not to focus on environmental damage.”

But the sponsor’s power over decision-making is often more subtle. The director and playwright, Mark Ravenhill, has talked about how there is a “climate of fear in the theatre”, about speaking out, challenging a sponsor’s ethics and risking losing funding. With that fear in the air, BP can advise and suggest, knowing that it can threaten to walk away if it doesn’t get its own way.

“We definitely look for excellence”

 By sponsoring the British Museum and others, BP has located itself at the heart of cultural diplomacy and supposed free expression – a shrewd move. When asked about how they seek out organisations to sponsor, Mather admitted, “I think you definitely do want to associate yourself with an excellent organisation.” But what does “excellent” actually mean to BP?

BP has chosen to sponsor the top, some might say ‘elite’, cultural institutions in London, where there are opportunities to reach large audiences. When Evan Davis did raise the argument that BP is attempting to “artwash” its brand, Mather gave himself away in his non-answer: “The key is, those 50 million people who’ve been through BP-sponsored events in the past 30 years – what do they think?” Of course, it’s only those deals where BP can gain the approval of millions, and entertain a government minister from time-to-time, that are seen as worthy of BP’s paltry investment.

“People go to exhibitions and often assume we’ve sponsored them.”

In a period of cuts to the arts, BP has attempted to paint itself as a philanthropist, falsely claiming that it is a crucial lifeline for the institutions its sponsors. It was recently reported that 40 local museums have closed due to funding cuts, yet BP’s money is saved for those at the top, where it can shout about its generosity. As Mather told Evan Davis, “We never like to just give cheques.”

With logos and acknowledgments spread over the British Museum’s “BP Lecture Theatre” and writ large in Trafalgar Square for the “BP Big Screen”, Mather and his colleagues are desperately trying to keep fossil fuels woven into a society that needs a cultural shift to renewable energy. After visiting Tate’s ‘BP Walk Through British Art’, the art critic Brian Sewell once remarked, “I wonder if BP realises how sick of its initials some of us are? Are we soon to buy BP sandwiches in the BP café, drink BP water from the BP waterspout, and dry our hands on BP paper in the BP loo?”

Following an information tribunal, the Tate was forced to reveal just how little money BP gives them. It turned out to be roughly 0.5% of the gallery’s income and, in some years, BP’s annual contribution was as little as £150,000. Over at the British Museum, a Freedom of Information request revealed that BP’s donation between 2000 and 2011 made up roughly 0.8% of the museum’s overall income. They are embarrassingly small amounts for institutions that like to boast about BP’s “generous support”.

Confronted with the charge of ‘greenwash’ by Evan Davis, Mather attempted to spin his way out of a hole. “We were the company probably first out of the blocks to recognise the potential causal link between the burning of fossil fuels and potential climate change. We’ve been working on that agenda pretty tirelessly for a long time.” They have. According to a recent ranking, BP is Europe’s fiercest corporate opponent of action on climate change through its lobbying and, as part of the Oil and Gas Climate group, BP dropped a commitment to carbon pricing just last week.

“Nobody at all has asked us to remove ourselves as sponsors”

The trouble for Peter Mather is that, contrary to his claim on Radio 4, people have been asking for BP to be removed as sponsors. The PCS Union, who represent many workers at the sponsored institutions, have voted to oppose oil sponsorship, hundreds of people have taken part in a host of creative actions in sponsored spaces, and numerous high profile and respected figures in the arts world have challenged BP sponsorship with letters in national papers and in interviews.

In reality, it is us – the taxpayer – that give more to these institutions than BP. Tate’s members alone give more to the gallery than they get through BP’s sponsorship. So while Peter Mather claims that BP’s sponsorship deals are “two-way, long-term relationships”, it is the public that has had the longer and more significant relationships with these cultural institutions so it’s time we reclaimed them from BP.

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